Hearts—be they fowl, bovine, or otherwise—are some of the most delectable, sought-after bits of offal to be found among gourmands, yet remain tragically underrated and under-appreciated by the general public. Most of this, it’s fair to assume has to do with the very nature of the cut with which we’re working; the heart has long been associated with love and love-related feelings, and we all probably feel sort of like monsters the first time we try them.
But they’re too delicious to ignore, and no one knows that better than Fergus Henderson, award-winning chef of London’s St. John, and all-around advocate and maestro of cooking nasty bits. In his book The Whole Beast, Henderson lays out a simple recipe for duck hearts on toast: fry five duck hearts in butter for about four minutes, add a splash of balsamic vinegar, plus dashes of sea salt and black pepper, and let simmer for a couple of minutes. Slap them on some toast and go to town.
Hearts—what with all the blood pumping through them and whatnot—retain a rich, iron-heavy flavor profile, and so you need a beer that is assertive enough to stand up to them, but with a cutting power to balance things out. In that case, a good Flemish red ale is a no-brainer: typically blends of sour brown ale aged in oak barrels for various lengths of time (sometimes over two years), they retain the maltiness of the base beer, but gradually take on tannic, wine-like properties that translate into notes of black cherry, leather, stone fruit, and occasionally port and chocolate.
Rodenbach is readily available and more than capable, but take a little more time and seek out Vander Ghinste Cuvée des Jacobins Rouge. Still fairly affordable at around $18 for a four-pack, this one is an unblended two-year-old ale aged in Bordeaux wine casks, and is my personal favorite. The malt profile locks onto the gamey characteristics of the duck hearts, while the acetic and fruit qualities help cut it; the splash of balsamic ties it all together.
Vietnamese Pho with Brasserie Vapeur Saison de Pipaix
If you give two shakes about Vietnamese food, you’ve had pho. A broth-based soup flavored with—among other things—lime, star anise, and ginger, it typically contains noodles, flank steak or another protein, and bean sprouts. But this is a piece about the stuff you never thought you’d eat if you weren’t under extreme duress, so it’s obviously not that simple.
Let me tell you about the Ha Long Bay Special Soup at Ha Long Bay here in Madison, Wisconsin. It hits all the marks of a traditional pho, but it contains a secret ingredient, and that secret ingredient is every part of the animal. Everything. Tripe (that’s the lining of the stomach), tendon, a meatball they say is pork but is probably only about half-right, and more. It’s amazing: salty, sour, rich, and fresh all at once, the dish highlights all the best characteristics of the tripe and tendon—no mere flavor sponges, they actually exhibit some great flavors—while minimizing the elements that, somewhat fairly, feed the stereotypes working against them.
For this dish, you need something suitably lively, a little spicy and, frankly, kind of wacky. Look no further than the superb Saison de Pipaix by Brasserie Vapeur. Slightly darker than most farmhouse ales, and stronger at 6% ABV, this saison also distinguishes itself by its use of some finicky yeast strains that throw off iron-like, wet wool types of flavors. These characteristics complement the riot of passion fruit, lemon peel, and floral hops layered throughout the beer as well.
Consumed together, the pho and saison complement each other beautifully: the savory, tart components of the soup are brought to the forefront, while the overly citrus-forward notes of the broth lend something of a tea-like flavor to the beer itself.
Fried Chicken Livers with Bell’s Cherry Stout
I know—I have to be kidding, right? Gamey, fatty organs with a fruit beer; it sounds like a troll job if ever there was one, and with most fruit beers—heck, with most cherry beers—you’d be justified in your skepticism. Hear me out…
Let’s start with the beer, for a change. Yes, this big, burly stout (about 7% ABV) contains a pretty absurd amount of cherries, and there’s no escaping from it in either the aroma or the flavor. But the base stout is so well-crafted, so heavily weighted toward the 90% cacao chocolate bar and bitter roasted malt side of the spectrum, that the cherries barely lend any sweetness at all. In fact, they lend an iron-like quality to the beer, along with that fleshy cherry flavor (almond-y pit flavors and all) that never begins to approach cloying.
So, chicken liver. I grew up in Georgia, in a little town called Adel, about 25 minutes north of Valdosta, and four hours away from Atlanta. About 3500 people lived there and, for my first job, I washed dishes at a fried chicken joint. Whole chickens, tenders, and nuggets were certainly on the menu, but we also sold menu items consisting entirely of livers and gizzards. This, I think, was my first taste of offal: at the end of an evening shift, we took whatever was available, what was left over. The livers and gizzards sold well, but not nearly as well as the standard cuts; often, I took livers, because that’s what I had to take.
In a way, it mirrors the whole point and history behind the consumption of offal: want shapes necessity. My family wasn’t poor, but I made barely $5 an hour as a high school pissant, and I wasn’t about to take any food home that wasn’t free. Fortunately, I ended up loving those cuts, livers especially. They were nearly cake-like, filled with an unctuous texture and earthy flavor I’d never before experienced.
The beer, somewhat surprisingly to me at first, latches right onto them. Cherry Stout’s base beer is complexly malted and bitter, so the earthy, gamey liver meets it tit for tat; the tinge of cherry sweetness helps to cut the fatty, full texture of the meat, while the iron-like nuances the fruit carries hint at—I swear—something akin to beef blood, does well in matching up with the liver’s rustic qualities.
Head Cheese (Pork) with Mikkeller/Grassroots Wheat is the New Hops (Chardonnay)
Phonetically speaking, there aren’t many phrases more off-putting than “head cheese.” It bears too close a resemblance to “toe jam,” for one thing; for another, the very concept automatically trips the “Thing that Should Not Be” alarm in the primal, lizard sector of our brains. It bears a stigma that only tripe, suet, and—maybe—butthole share.
But if done right, it is delicious. Essentially the meat of a pig’s head slow-cooked, stripped, then set in its own jelly, well-made and well-treated head cheese rivals the complexity of many a $50 prime-cut entrée. A classic recipe calls for the inclusion of carrots, celery, and onions, the classic mirepoix; a splash of red wine vinegar, black peppercorns, and a garni of herbs complete the profile.
Obviously, you need something that has, shall we say, a lot going on. The base beer for this is already solid on its own: a wheat IPA fermented with brettanomyces, the yeast actually acts as a natural preservative for the hop flavor, while still offering up that funky dryness you’d expect from a brett beer. The hops are peachy, with something resembling lemon zest on the finish.
But the Chardonnay-barrel version—admittedly, okay, a little harder to find, but not impossible—takes it to the next level, adding a buttery oak and wine grape note that matches up perfectly with the brett-hop combo. That rich oak flavor stands up to the unctuous texture of the head cheese; the mirepoix and garni complement the bright hops and brett mustiness; a very effervescent yet softly textured beer, it cuts through what is an immensely fatty, rich dish.